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June 24, 2019

SCOTUS, ruling 5-4, finds part of 924(c) unconstitutionally vague in Davis

This morning the Supreme Court in US v. Davis, No. 18-431 (S. Ct. June 24, 2019) (available here), has issues another huge ruling finding an important federal criminal statute unconstitutionally vague. The majority opinion in Davis is authored by Justice Gorsuch and starts this way:

In our constitutional order, a vague law is no law at all.  Only the people’s elected representatives in Congress have the power to write new federal criminal laws. And when Congress exercises that power, it has to write statutes that give ordinary people fair warning about what the law demands of them.  Vague laws transgress both of those constitutional requirements.  They hand off the legislature’s responsibility for defining criminal behavior to unelected prosecutors and judges, and they leave people with no sure way to know what consequences will attach to their conduct.  When Congress passes a vague law, the role of courts under our Constitution is not to fashion a new, clearer law to take its place, but to treat the law as a nullity and invite Congress to try again.

Today we apply these principles to 18 U. S. C. §924(c).  That statute threatens long prison sentences for anyone who uses a firearm in connection with certain other federal crimes. But which other federal crimes?  The statute’s residual clause points to those felonies “that by [their] nature, involv[e] a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.” § 924(c)(3)(B).  Even the government admits that this language, read in the way nearly everyone (including the government) has long understood it, provides no reliable way to determine which offenses qualify as crimes of violence and thus is unconstitutionally vague.  So today the government attempts a new and alternative reading designed to save the residual clause. But this reading, it turns out, cannot be squared with the statute’s text, context, and history.  Were we to adopt it, we would be effectively stepping outside our role as judges and writing a new law rather than applying the one Congress adopted.

Justice Kavanaugh authors a very lengthy dissent for himself and three other Justices that starts this way:

Crime and firearms form a dangerous mix. From the 1960s through the 1980s, violent gun crime was rampant in America.  The wave of violence destroyed lives and devastated communities, particularly in America’s cities.  Between 1963 and 1968, annual murders with firearms rose by a staggering 87 percent, and annual aggravated assaults with firearms increased by more than 230 percent.

Faced with an onslaught of violent gun crime and its debilitating effects, the American people demanded action. In 1968, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Gun Control Act.  That law made it a separate federal crime to use or carry a firearm during a federal felony. Despite that and other efforts, violent crime with firearms continued at extraordinarily dangerous levels.  In 1984 and again in 1986, in legislation signed by President Reagan, Congress reenacted that provision of the 1968 Act, with amendments.  The law now prohibits, among other things, using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to a federal “crime of violence.” 18 U. S. C. §924(c)(1)(A).  The law mandates substantial prison time for violators.

Over the last 33 years, tens of thousands of §924(c) cases have been prosecuted in the federal courts. Meanwhile, violent crime with firearms has decreased significantly.  Over the last 25 years, the annual rate of murders with firearms has dropped by about 50 percent, and the annual rate of nonfatal violent crimes (robberies, aggravated assaults, and sex crimes) with firearms has decreased by about 75 percent.  Violent crime in general (committed with or without a firearm) has also declined. During that same time period, both the annual rate of overall violent crime and the annual rate of murders have dropped by almost 50 percent.  Although the level of violent crime in America is still very high, especially in certain cities, Americans under the age of 40 probably cannot fully appreciate how much safer most American cities and towns are now than they were in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.  Many factors have contributed to the decline of violent crime in America. But one cannot dismiss the effects of state and federal laws that impose steep punishments on those who commit violent crimes with firearms.

Yet today, after 33 years and tens of thousands of federal prosecutions, the Court suddenly finds a key provision of §924(c) to be unconstitutional because it is supposedly too vague. That is a surprising conclusion for the Court to reach about a federal law that has been applied so often for so long with so little problem.  The Court’s decision today will make it harder to prosecute violent gun crimes in the future.  The Court’s decision also will likely mean that thousands of inmates who committed violent gun crimes will be released far earlier than Congress specified when enacting §924(c). The inmates who will be released early are not nonviolent offenders.  They are not drug offenders.  They are offenders who committed violent crimes with firearms, often brutally violent crimes.

June 24, 2019 at 10:11 AM | Permalink

Comments

On a legal level, I think the Court is correct. The clause is vague.

On a practical level, this is going to piss off a lot of voters. I imagine that Congress will react with a statute that is at least as tough, but without the vagueness.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Jun 24, 2019 9:16:11 PM

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